THE DEATH OF SOLITUDE

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By Rodney Barnes

Saturday night and Quinn Maeback is outside Blu Lounge in Yorkville. She’s met by two of her girlfriends at the door. She’s never been inside.

“I’m not so sure about this place,” whispers one. The bouncer, facing the street 20 feet away, doesn’t hear.

A yelp erupts from behind them and Maeback turns around, squealing “Tina!”

The two of them embrace, chattering. Joe Louis, Maeback’s boyfriend, stands quietly to the side. Like Maeback, he’s also a Toronto hip-hop artist. He refers to them as a “celebrity couple.”

They head inside and move past the bar, lingering frequently as someone stops Maeback or Louis. Sometimes they’ll know who they’re talking to. Maeback is often approached by people who recognize her from her shows around the city. They might have even met her, but she won’t remember.

Since she released her first single, “Swagger of a Rockstar,” in 2007, the third-year nursing student’s social life exploded. The single hit the fourth spot on Flow 93.5’s Mega City Countdown, and MuchVibe featured the video. The song received more than 1 million hits on her MySpace page and her Facebook profile ballooned to over 5,000 friends — so large she couldn’t add any more. Now Maeback’s mother manages her account.

Leading the life of a burgeoning artist and university student means she is always connected to people, whether through her cellphone or online. But Maeback is only one example of a generation of students who are perpetually plugged in to each other in an attempt to be known and valued.

Twitter, Blackberry chat and other social media have allowed us to both increase our network of friends and be in touch with them at every moment. But some experts say this persistent contact with people has caused students to fear loneliness, and in their avoidance of it they lose the ability for introspection and self discovery. Instead of taking time alone to figure out who they are, students are defining themselves in relation to other people.

This is because we seek to be known by others, argues former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz, in The Chronicle. “This is the quality that validates us,” he writes.

“This is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”

What’s at stake is an important aspect of our development. Solitude helps us step back from society, from being too influenced by other’s opinions. By grounding our identities within ourselves, we can begin to explore its depths.

Instead, students are finding themselves online. Mark Federman, a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a PhD student at the University of Toronto, says people are now sharing what would otherwise be private information. This gives their audience a greater role in defining who they are. So students with Facebook profiles who keep record of their daily activities receive feedback from potentially thousands of friends who bring their own context, each shaping and changing one another.

In this way, says Federman, we collectively construct our identities. Who we are is no longer a product of our own will so much as a reflection of those around us.

“What am I?” he asks. “Well, it depends What do you want me to be?” For Federman, the new truth is, “I blog, I twitter, I post — therefore I am.”

The music at Blu is a little too slow for Maeback. She’s sitting around the edge of an empty dance floor, texting her friends to see if there’s a better venue in the area. Her girlfriends are doing the same. One of them knows someone at Empire lounge, and suggests they go there. The club is packed but Maeback knows the owner and they get in for free. The night is picking up.

While Maeback is out clubbing, Stephen Kershaw is procrastinating on his thesis. A master’s student in management science in his second year at Ryerson, Kershaw lives alone in a basement bachelor apartment near campus. A friend, Ali, had called him earlier to see if he wanted to hang out.

“Well, I’m going to work for a bit,” he told Ali. “Let me see how I do.”

He didn’t end up going out. Instead of working on his thesis, however, he checks hockey scores and watches YouTube videos of chess masters.

Kershaw is among a minority of students who don’t have as much invested in social media, and are looking into themselves to find their identity. He spends a lot of his time alone. He doesn’t have much of an online presence. Instead he’s been trying to use his work as a way to define himself. But it’s been tough, he says, because of how uncertain his work is. He completed his undergrad at U of T studying nanotechnology. Now he is at Ryerson for his MBA in a completely different area. He doesn’t know what he will be doing when he graduates, and this has put into question how he constructs his own identity.

“One thing I’ve been wondering is to what extent am I already the person that I’m going to be?”

Kershaw says practicing yoga for the past seven years has helped him connect with himself.

“You get this sense of self that is very physical,” he says. “It helps me be comfortable in any given situation. A lot of that is human interaction.”

Socializing takes a lot of energy for Kershaw. He gets uncomfortable with silence in conversations. “I felt like I had to be entertaining so people would like me,” he says. “Maybe I was just always judging my worth by what was going on in the moment, rather than this greater sense of myself, which I think I had to be alone to figure out.”

Rhonda McEwen, a researcher at U of T, is currently studying cellphone use among firstyear post-secondary school students going from high school into university. She’s looking at feelings of loneliness during that period.

What she finds is, while new technology is causing a loss of solitude, it may not be a bad thing. For students who are moving away from family and friends for the first time, social media is a way to maintain existing ties and bridge new relationships.

What she sees happening, however, is a change in what defines loneliness. McEwen discovered that her sense of being alone clashed with that of the students.

“To them alone is a fleeting thing, and they’re never really alone because they have access to their networks at all times,” she says.

“You see interaction happening in a stream that doesn’t really have a beginning or an end but is just there. If there is no end, if you’re just always in the midst of it, in a sense you’re never really alone because you could just jump into an ongoing conversation at any point.”

McEwan says this could potentially be a problem. Unaccustomed to feeling lonely, students don’t know what to do with themselves when they are cut off. They get uncomfortable, anxious to see what they are missing.

“I think there’s a generation coming up that is not familiar with what we mean by getting away from it all,” says McEwan.

This doesn’t mean we need to be spending more time alone, she says. “It’s not that being alone ever really felt comfortable. We’ve always sought people out for social support in some way. I think we’re sort of romanticizing something that has generally not been true.”

Deresiewicz disagrees. “The more we keep aloneness at bay,” he writes, “the more terrifying it gets.”

The act of being alone is an essential dimension of religious experience, writes Deresiewicz. Philosophers, the Romantics, Modernists — all of them placed introspection at the centre of spiritual life, of wisdom. But it seems like we no longer believe in the solitary mind; all mental space is social.

“Today’s young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another,” he writes. “They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden.

“We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary… each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.”

It’s 2 a.m. and Maeback is on the vacant lower dance floor at Empire lounge. A soca fete pumps at an incredible pace throughout the room, but she’s not dancing. She’s had a busy day, and she’s tired. Before heading out tonight she was at her goddaughter’s birthday, surrounded by energy- exhausting tots. On the other side of the city, Kershaw is finishing up a semi-productive evening and heading to sleep. Maeback also decides to call it a night.

“I’m just feeling anti-social,” she says.

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